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Sermon on praying for a Government

By Rabbi Colin Eimer (Alyth Synagogue)

On a visit to Moscow, some time in the late 1970s, I went to the so-called Moscow Choral Synagogue. It’s a massive building, with imposing pillars on the front, a dome on top and an interior not dissimilar to West London Synagogue. It was built in the 1870s at the same time as similar-sized synagogues in many parts of the world, all of them making a sort of public statement to the effect: “we are here, we’ve arrived!” On either side of the Ark were large panels: one had the kaddish, and the other what I was told was the prayer for the Tsar and the government. I still remember it, after all these years, I suppose, because I was struck by the incongruity of Jews praying for a government which, at the time the synagogue was built, encouraged antisemitism, while the exodus of Jews from Tsarist Russia was gathering momentum.

More prosaically, it reminded me of the prayer for the Tsar in Fiddler on the Roof: “God bless the Tsar – and keep him far away from us!”

And so, a few moments ago we did what most synagogues do and read a prayer for the Royal Family and the government. It’s not an innovation, as some think, from the time of 19thC Emancipation nor was it something we were forced to do by antisemitic authorities, be they religious or secular.

At the time of the exile to Babylon after the destruction of the Temple in 586BCE, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles: “Seek the peace of the city where I, God, have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to God for the peace of the city, for in its peace shall you have peace.”(Jeremiah 29:7)

2000 years ago the Mishnah warned: “Be careful of those in power! For they do not draw anybody near to them excerpt in their own interest. They seem like friends when it is to their own advantage, but they do not stand by a person in their hour of need.” (Avot 2:3) and it encourages us to “pray for the welfare of the government for were it not for the fear of it, people would swallow each other up alive.” (Avot 3:2)

So just two days into a new order, we are faced with these questions. Is what those Mishnaic rabbis were expressing some sort of world-weary rabbinic cynicism or was it a recognition of the way things are? Throughout our history, rabbis were no strangers to political dealings and political systems. As representatives of minority groups in society, they had to navigate those systems, learning what were the rules of the game in their particular time and place, gauging which way the wind was blowing, knowing how to hobnob with power without being seduced by its blandishments. All of which is easier said than done.

Normally, as a news-freak, I’d have been glued to the media in the run-up to a general election. However, I’ve not been over-sorry to have been out of the country for the past two weeks, because, when I was able to listen, I heard some pretty lack-lustre speeches, promises and debates focussed, it seems, less on inner content and meaning, and even more than usual on style, rhetoric and skilful avoidance of answering the interviewer’s questions. Rabbi Howard Cooper once described these debates as “mini dramas of personal ambition and competitiveness masquerading as caring, compassionate expressions of concern for the collective well-being of the nation.” Was he being too cynical about what was going on?

Earliest examples of a formal prayer for the welfare of the king and government date from around the 8thC. In his 1340 commentary to the siddur, the way Rabbi David Avurdraham in Seville writes about this prayer suggests it’s already a well-established custom.

Tough as it might have been in Tsarist Russia to recite a prayer for the welfare of the government, I often wondered what happened to the prayer for the government in synagogues in Nazi Germany after 1933? How could rabbis pray for the welfare of a government which was actively trying in every way to bring an end to over 1000 years of German Jewish life? Sadly we know very little about what rabbis did about it.

The rabbi In Philip Roth’s wonderful novel The Plot Against America is modelled on a rabbi called Joachim Prinz. Born in 1902, Prinz was rabbi in Berlin from 1927. After 1933, he spoke out against the Nazis, urging Jews to leave for Palestine. Expelled in 1937 he was rabbi in the USA until retirement. En passant he was a great social activist and worked with Martin Luther King. He spoke on the podium just before King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1966. You can see it on YouTube.

Prinz writes how, soon after the Nazis came to power, the Gestapo put two men in each synagogue, monitoring every sermon and speech. Indeed, he was once arrested in mid-sermon by the Gestapo. I shudder to think what I would have done in that situation in Germany. I’m glad my rabbinic mettle, devotion or courage have never been put to that sort of test.

Whatever form the new government will take, we know that, thank goodness, it won’t be anything like that. I wondered if the editorial in last week’s Jewish Chronicle might have said anything about how Jews should vote? I remembered what the editorial had said 10? 12? years ago when Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone were contesting the election for Mayor of London. Jews should vote for Johnson, the editorial said, simply because he wasn’t Ken Livingstone. Ken Livingstone’s record on Jews was well-known but surely the advice to Jewish voters should have been “vote for the person you think is best for London.”

Values are not, of course, the same as interests, and interests sometimes have to be defended and often defended fiercely. Too often, though, we hear Jews seeing everything, or too much, through the lens of Jewish interests. But focussing over-much on Jewish interests rather than on Jewish values may, in the end, be more costly than we imagine.

For interests focus on one’s particular group and, in a way, on the past; values might be rooted in a collective past but look to a better future informed by those values. The two have to go together, clearly: without a commitment to the past, the orientation to the future won’t work, there wouldn’t be a future for us.

Had I been giving this sermon before October 7th it might have been quite different. The response to Israel’s action in Gaza has revealed a dimension of society we might have thought might be there, but which has now become, sadly, glaringly evident, almost sanctioned, and can’t be ignored. But heaven forbid if we allow it to determine how we see ourselves in the world, leading us to retreat from involvement in the world, pulling up the drawbridge, as it were, and turning our focus of interest inwards.

All those dangerous words like ‘mission,’ ‘purpose,’ ‘social justice,’ ‘tikkun olam,’ ‘redemption’ and so on are what have sustained us socially, religiously and politically. The danger is that identity and commitment will not outlast the narrow exigencies of interest – for interest is, so often, determined, as we have seen, by a particular time, place and set of specific circumstances.

So what might a prayer for the new government look like? We could look to Pirke Avot where Ben Azai asks eyzeh hu gibor? “who is strong?” and answers his question with hakovesh et yitzro, “those who control their passions.” (Avot 4.1) Or as I like to think he might have put it on this particular morning: strength is not the same as triumphalism which is, actually, a misuse of strength.

We already knew it, but the election has made glaringly evident how fractured our society is. May the new government always remember that, as it negotiates its way between politics and party politics. ‘Politics’ is, as the Greek word ‘polis’ suggests, a concern about society as a whole; ‘party politics’ suggests a concern with advancing the interests just of my particular group. Values look to a better future; interests to the past and maintaining power.

I hope the government does not lose sight of that supposed ancient Chinese curse: “May we live in exciting times.” My hope and prayer is that we should, indeed, live in exciting times, but that it is not in any sense a curse but, instead, a blessing for all of humanity.

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